The Authority Gap, by Mary Ann Sieghart

The authority gap is the mother of all gender gaps. Nothing will change unless we acknowledge that the gap exists and that we want to do something about it. Banner image: Shutterstock/MJGraphics
The Authority Gap, by Mary Ann Sieghart
Adapted from the introduction and 15th chapter of The Authority Gap Why Women Are Still Taken Less Seriously Than Men, and What We Can Do About It, by Mary Ann Sieghart. Copyright 2022. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton. All rights reserved.
The Forum Network is a space for experts and thought leaders—from around the world and all parts of society— to discuss and develop solutions now and for the future. Aiming to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge, opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.

The authority gap is the mother of all gender gaps. If women aren’t taken as seriously as men, they are going to be paid less, promoted less and held back in their careers. They are going to feel less confident and less entitled to success. If we don’t do anything about it, the gap between women and men in the public sphere will never disappear.

However progressive and intelligent we think we are, innumerable scientific studies show that we all – women as well as men – have unconscious biases, even against our own gender. We may not be aware of them – they are called ‘unconscious’ for a reason – but they spill out into our behaviour and, unless we notice and correct for them, we will continue to take women less seriously than men. We will continue to assume that a man knows what he’s talking about until he proves otherwise, while for a woman it’s all too often the other way around. The authority gap will remain as wide as ever.

Mahzarin Banaji is Professor and Chair of the Department of Psychology at Harvard and an expert on unconscious or ‘implicit’ bias. This, as she told me, is how it comes about: ‘Implicit bias comes from our social world, from our culture, because the content of what the brain knows is what it sees in the world. So I see that men do certain kinds of work and women do other kinds of work. If I had seen in my world that women were largely construction workers and engineers, that’s what my brain would have learnt; and if I had seen in my world that men largely took care of children at home and cooked and cleaned for them, then that’s what my brain would have learnt.’

We absorb the notion of male superiority from such an early age. British parents, when asked to estimate their children’s IQ, will put their son, on average, at 115 (which in itself is hilarious, as the average ought to be 100) and their daughter at 107, a huge statistical difference. Why they do this is a mystery, as young girls develop faster than boys, have a bigger vocabulary, and do better at school. But the result is that boys, on average, grow up thinking that they are cleverer than girls, and vice versa. As early as five, studies show that children believe girls aren’t as good at maths as boys (even though they are). And when asked to choose team-mates for a game for ‘really, really smart’ children, young children of both genders are more likely to choose boys than girls. Yet at that age, girls are ahead of boys academically, and the children in the study knew it.

American parents, meanwhile, are two and a half times more likely to Google ‘Is my son gifted?’ than ‘Is my daughter gifted?’ even though girls make up 11 per cent more of the gifted and talented programmes in US schools.

No surprise, then, that adult men will, on average, put their own IQ at 110, while women estimate themselves to be just 105. Yet we know that, except for at the far extremes of the IQ curve, women’s and men’s IQs are distributed identically. Girls, on average, get higher grades at school and are more likely than boys to win places at university, masters courses and beyond. The main reason for boys and men to think that they are cleverer than girls and women must be because their parents, teachers and society have – incorrectly – imbued them with the belief that they are.

Some readers will claim that this is all old hat. Aren’t women now being favoured? In fact, aren’t they now getting all the top jobs? Isn’t it hardest of all these days to be a middle-aged white man: ‘pale, male and stale’? Well, it is harder than it was, when all those characteristics conferred a massive advantage in every aspect of life. And it’s true that some of the top jobs that have been held by men throughout their existence are at last having women appointed to them. Structurally, things are starting to change for the better. But even getting a top job doesn’t entirely insulate you from having your authority challenged.

Nor is the change happening so fast that men are unfairly suffering, though it may feel that way when male privilege starts to be withdrawn. And by ‘privilege’ I don’t mean wealth or social status: merely the fact of being a man rather than a woman. Women still have a very long way to go – and men still have a very long way to fall – before we get anywhere near equality.

A former editor of mine told me that my book was out of date because the only people being appointed to boards these days were women; men no longer had a chance. The next day, I sent him the figures for the previous month: there had been twenty male board appointments and nineteen female ones. Nothing like enough to even out the existing 2:1 ratio of men to women on boards, but better than it used to be. And although board appointments are now, at last, more equal thanks to government insistence, the same isn’t true for executive jobs. For him, though, it felt like male annihilation.

As the philosopher Kate Manne puts it in Down Girl: ‘These bastions [of privilege] are often well-defended and difficult to challenge. For people are often, unsurprisingly, deeply invested in their continuation. To make matters worse, these structures are often quite invisible to the people whose privileged social positions they serve to uphold and buttress. So dismantling them may feel not only like a comedown, but also an injustice, to the privileged. They will tend to feel flattened, rather than merely levelled, in the process.’

She is right about the invisible nature of privilege, which is the flip side of bias. Most men simply don’t notice it. And why would they? I struggle to notice my white privilege, the fact that people aren’t biased against me because of my skin colour. Yet, in everyday life, it’s as if men are swimming with the current in a river and women are swimming against it. The men see the banks racing past them and congratulate themselves for swimming so powerfully. They look at the women struggling to make headway against the current and think, ‘Why can’t they swim as fast as me? They’re obviously not as good.’ Unless they make a conscious and sustained effort to do so, men can’t feel the current, and they put their success – and women’s relative lack of it – down to pure merit. It’s human nature not to want to believe that privilege, and the bias it engenders, has helped them along. Or that women are being held back, despite their merit. This means there is a deep asymmetry. […]

Nothing will change unless we acknowledge that the gap exists and that we want to do something about it. We are always far readier to spot bias in others than in ourselves. For men, in particular, it can be challenging to admit that there is a problem. Male scientists, for instance, who have been trained all their lives to analyse and interpret evidence objectively, are still prone to evaluate research on gender bias less favourably than women are. This is particularly true among men teaching STEM subjects at university. And the research itself is funded less often and published in less prestigious journals than research on race bias. Gender bias still seems to be an inconvenient truth for some men.

These men are probably suffering from what Tony Hockley of the University of Oregon calls solution aversion. As he explains it, ‘The concept of solution aversion is the idea that people are motivated to deny problems and the scientific evidence supporting the existence of the problems when they are averse to the solutions.’ If the solution to the authority gap were simply that men had to cede power to women, I can see why they might be averse to losing their privileged position in the world. I don’t deny that some rebalancing of power is called for, but there are so many other ways of narrowing the gap that don’t threaten men, and others that positively benefit them. […]

I began my book with a quote from the former Irish President Mary McAleese, and I end it with another from her, for she is perhaps the most eloquent woman I have talked to on this important subject. ‘If men don’t take women equally seriously, we end up with this world that flies on one wing, and I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a bird that tries to fly on one wing?’ she asked me. ‘It can’t get elevation, it can’t get direction, it flaps about rather sadly. And that’s our world, flapping about rather sadly because of the refusal to use the elevation and the direction and the confidence that comes from flying on two wings.

‘And the sad thing is that very often this male wing seems to think it has to spend a lot of effort keeping the other wing down. And that’s wasted effort, it’s wasted lives. It has caused dysfunction in relationships, it has caused dysfunction in families, in communities, in workplaces, in politics, in international politics, in warfare. That’s where we have to understand that when women flourish and their talents and their creativity flourish, then the world flourishes and men flourish.

‘We all flourish.’ 

Find out more about The Authority Gap, by Mary Ann Sieghart (Published in February 2022, ©W. W. Norton)

Related topics: 

New Societal Contract Gender Equality

Please sign in

If you are a registered user on The OECD Forum Network, please sign in